In the early ‘90s, Disney was emboldened.
Both its theatrical and television divisions were flourishing. Each new animated film the studio released was an instant sensation, the live action output was super hot, sparked by the success of Tom Hanks’ fun mermaid comedy Splash, its home video department was finally releasing some of the studio’s hard-to-find animated classics, the Disney Parks expanded and innovated, and Disney had an elevated presence on television too, both because of the acquisition of ABC and the aggressive expansion of its high-quality animated output (exemplified by the stellar Disney Afternoon syndicated programming block). The studio was on fire.
One of the less talked about expansion points was the company’s move into comic books (detailed here). The response to these new comic books, paired with the success of an Italian magazine called Topolino (the Italian name for Mickey Mouse)—that combined comic books with editorial content—spurred Michael Lynton, who was then director of business development for Disney’s consumer products division and had created the Disney Publishing division of the company, to start a new magazine for kids. Topolino had operated for more than twenty years with a license from Disney. Now Disney was publishing Topolino itself. And it was going to bring that same aesthetic to the United States. With that, Disney Adventures was born.
I remember subscribing to Disney Adventures and getting them in the mail: They were “digest-sized” (the size of the classic TV Guide magazines) and in those early years almost always featured a static image of an of-the-moment celebrity, interacting with one or more Disney characters. (The art was all custom and breathtaking.) Inside, there was a head-spinning mixture of editorial content, comic book material—both new and repurposed (including excerpts of popular comics of the time, like Jeff Smith’s Bone, scrubbed clean for the family-friendly audience), real-life stories, and promotional material meant to emphasize one aspect of the company or another.
Take the July, 1992 issue (the magazine was published 10 times a year): the cover features popular Saturday Night Live characters Wayne and Garth (Mike Myers and Dana Carvey), being menaced by Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Cruella de Vil. The cover also riffs on the Wayne’s World “top ten” list, with a “Top 10 Reasons to Read This Magazine” (and, yes, that is an insane amount of text to fit on a magazine no bigger than a paperback novel). The reasons include “Comics and Puzzles” (#8), “Sand Castles” (#5), and, um, “Camels” (#4). Hey, if camels don’t get you to pick up a magazine, I don’t know what will.
Flipping through the magazine is like opening up a time capsule. It’s a fascinating document that details what Disney (and, to a larger extent, children) were like at the time. On one of the first pages is a calendar for the month that includes holidays like National Cheer-Up-the-Lonely Day (July 11) alongside helpful hints like “Time to see Honey, I Blew Up the Kids” (July 20). There was a section of the magazine called Ticket (“Your guide to TV, Movies, Music and Books”) that features an interview with Step by Step star Staci Keanan (remember ABC’s Friday night TGIF programming block?), a shout-out to the theatrical re-release of animated classic Pinocchio and big-time summer movie Batman Returns, and a note about The Rocketeer’s home video release. Instead of an interview with Wayne and Garth (either in or out of character), the cover story is a profile of Dwayne Ramble, who has seen the Wayne’s World movie 27 and ½ times (“he fainted the first time from excitement”) and who I’m pretty sure is a wholly fictional creation of the magazine. Then there’s the promised ode to camels, a comic called Space Mickey and the Throgg Ray Wars, translated by Lee Nordling and featuring art by Sergio Asteriti (originally published in Topolino), that runs a whopping 23 pages.
The real centerpiece of the issue is an ode to villains–and not just Disney villains. Everyone from the Wicked Witch of the West from Wizard of Oz (potentially included due to the recent opening of Disney-MGM Studios in Florida) to Captain Hook (but not the animated Captain Hook from Disney’s Peter Pan, but rather Dustin Hoffman from Steven Spielberg’s Hook) is represented, alongside Darth Vader, the Joker from Tim Burton’s Batman, and the Sheriff of Nottingham from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (which had just come out on home video at the time). Additional features in the villain spread included a Match Crime (“Can you match your favorite bad guy to their dastardly deed?”) and a special section dedicated to Dick Tracy’s foes (“If looks could kill”). There are little trading cards for made-up villains that readers had submitted.
The rest of the issue is an interesting combination of stories and content—there’s a short story (Joe Rocket, Master of All Knowledge), an article on the Tour de France, a “Baseball Name Game,” an article about training to be a professional umpire, a profile on Ken Sherwin, a Chicago hot dog vendor (he got to “go to every Bulls, Blackhawks, White Sox, and Chicago Cubs game in 1991). Additionally, there was Weird But True, a fixture for the magazine (fun fact: “The world’s largest peanut butter and jelly sandwich was displayed in a hotel lobby in Atlanta, Georgia. At 15 feet by 10 feet, it included 500 pounds of peanut butter and 200 pounds of jelly.”)
Following through on the top 10 list on the cover, there’s an article about Gary Kirk and his professional sandcastle building company (#5: Sand Castles), a comic inspired by Disney Afternoon staple Darkwing Duck written by Doug Gray with art by David Schwartz, a section on “Hot Videogame Picks” (included: Monster in My Pocket for Nintendo and Olympic Gold – Barcelona ’92 for Sega Genesis), and, at the end of the magazine, several pages of games and activities.
As you can tell, this magazine was jam-packed. And if you were a Disney fanatic of a certain age, getting this magazine in the mail was like receiving a little slice of heaven (especially if you lived away from either of the domestic theme parks). It was ambitious and crazy and totally cool.
As a Los Angeles Times article from April, 1994 stated, the original intent was for the magazine to simply promote Disney Channel’s robust line-up of original programming. But that soon changed. “The concept quickly broadened to encompass sports, celebrities and films—even those from other movie studios,” the Times reported. “Similar to strategies employed at Sports Illustrated for Kids and the new Nickelodeon magazine, Lynton’s bet was that children would forsake video games and pick up a magazine if it had ready-made brand identification and didn’t read like a textbook.” In an amazing sign of the times, the newspaper noted that Disney Adventures magazine editor Tommi Lewis, “said she stays in touch with her young readers by “talking” to some of them on the America Online computer network.” America Online. Amazing.
In 1994, at the time of the Los Angeles Time profile, the circulation of Disney Adventures had “soared” to 1 million. It was continually published for more than 15 years, with relatively minor tweaks–the iconic logo was tweaked, ESPN properties were incorporated more fully, the whole celebrities-besieged-by-animated-characters cover aesthetic was ultimately abandoned. For 17 years, Disney Adventures remained a place where kids could get a great selection of comic books, stories, editorial that ran the gamut from pop culture to sports, and, most importantly Disney stuff. Lots and lots of Disney stuff. The final issue of the magazine was distributed 17 years after the very first issue. Ratatouille was on the cover. And while the magazine is no longer published, its legacy remains. Ask anyone who subscribed when they were a little kid if they’re still a Disney fan today, and they’ll tell you yes. I was a subscriber myself.